Larry Ferlazzo, an inner-city high school teacher in Sacramento, CA, blogger and columnist, has used "What Ifs" with his International Baccalaureate (IB) "Theory of Knowledge" students as well as with English Language Learners.
"Students tend to look at history as just the learning of facts that are set in stone and almost as destined to be," he wrote on his blog in 2012. "Through a 'What if?" project, I think students can gain a greater grasp of the fragility, interconnections and imponderables that we confronted in our past and will face in our future.
He gave his IB Theory of Knowledge students "a couple of days to work in pairs and develop a short PowerPoint presentation. They then gave three-to-five minute presentations, during which all students had to come up with a question and the presenters picked on one student to share theirs."
You can see the lesson and links to PowerPoints at his Theory of Knowledge class blog, and four examples are embedded below. The first is based on the Trent Affair of 1861, when President Lincoln was faced with a choice in how to react when Yankees captured a British ship containing Confederate diplomats headed for England to seek recognition for the Confederacy and financial aid. Hot-headed Northern media and some Yankees were calling for the diplomats to be charged with treason and executed, and claiming the British engaged in a hostile act of war. The students came up with this counter-factual and its consequences.
Diane Laufenberg, a long-time teacher in Wisconsin (http://www.twitter.com/dlaufenberg), produced and shared some excellent lesson plans for teaching alternate history. This was her introduction for a unit on the 1960s:
Counterfactual or alternate history is a fringe topic amongst academic historians. However, as a class activity it opens up the world of history for inquiry, investigation and creativity. History often is dry and disengaging for the average student, the What If? project is focused on the specific engagement of the student with a deep investigation of the historical record. The steps which take the student through the exercise is challenging, couched in research and steeped in creativity. The following pages details some of the tools used to facilitate the unit and project.
You are to identify one specific point in American history for which you are interested in changing the outcome. Once you have identified your point of divergence, you will need to consider both the immediate changes and the long-term impacts that divergence would have on modern society. You will present your “revised history” through the creation of “new” primary sources and a multimedia project.
Alternate Presidents, published in 1992, an anthology, offers some intriguing possibilities. One challenge for students of history would be to read a chapter and explain why the scenario could not happen. That would require detailed knowledge of real history.
The anthology is described by most critics as "hit or miss," some intriguing and plausible, some entirely implausible, fantasy, and a waste of time. Brief descriptions of the scenarios are here.